With Matt Harvey likely out for the entire year following Tommy John surgery in October, the New York Mets are prepared to enter the 2014 season ace-less.
The Mets’ lack of a replacement for Harvey at the front of the rotation means that they will need other starters to take on an expanded role next season, and no pitcher is more ready for the challenge than 23-year-old Zack Wheeler.
Wheeler quietly emerged as one of the better rookie pitchers in the major leagues last season following a mid-June debut, registering a 3.42 ERA with 84 strikeouts in 100 innings (17 starts). The right-hander was especially solid in his 12 starts after the All-Star break, posting a 3.38 ERA with 66 hits allowed and 63 strikeouts in 72 innings.
While the notion of Wheeler becoming the Mets’ ace in 2014 is certainly exciting and would make Harvey’s absence easier to stomach, it’s also a lofty and unrealistic expectation for the second-year hurler.
Wheeler steadily wore down over final two months of the 2013 season, evidenced by his declining vertical release point and slight dip in velocity:
Though neither trend was problematic by itself, the combination noticeably caused Wheeler’s fastball to flatten out toward the end of the year:
Wheeler’s fatigue was directly related to his workload, as the 170.2 innings he threw last year marked a new career high for the right-hander after he logged 149 frames in 2012.
But after Matt Harvey’s late-season elbow injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery, the Mets are more inclined to exercise caution during the final stages of Wheeler’s development.
The Mets allowed Harvey a greater workload to begin his pro career due to his college background, and then stretched him out more aggressively in the high minors. In 2012 Harvey accrued 174.1 total innings between spring training, Triple-A and major leagues. Based on the standard developmental progression for young pitchers, he was likely to pitch roughly 200 innings the following year.
Harvey made his final start of the regular season on Aug. 24, giving up two earned runs and a season-high 13 hits in 6.2 innings. The outing pushed the right-hander’s innings total (spring training and major leagues) up to 205.2 for the season, which would have been an appropriate workload compared to his previous year.
But if Harvey had been allowed to finish the regular season on his own terms (without an innings limit), and obviously not suffered the unfortunate elbow injury, then he would have likely made six additional starts (one more in August and five in September). Combine that with the fact that the right-hander failed to complete six innings just three times in 26 starts last year, and we’re talking about a workload of 240 innings, give or take.
Did anyone see Harvey’s injury coming last year? No.
However, there’s no question that he was overworked too early in his career. And given some of the Mets’ other young arms, such as Wheeler and top prospect Noah Syndergaard, guys who have the potential to make the team’s big league rotation one of the best—and certainly one of the more exciting—in the National League within the next two years, they aren’t going to make the same mistake twice.
Wheeler proved he could get ahead in the count and later put away opposing hitters last season. However, it was what happened in between that suggests the right-hander has room to improve in 2014.
Specifically, Wheeler struggled to throw quality strikes with his entire arsenal when facing a one-strike count:
Though Wheeler’s lack of success with one strike last season could have something to do with pitch selection, it’s more likely a product of his less aggressive approach in those particular counts. Regardless of the source, Wheeler exhibited a tendency to de-emphasize the second strike, preferring to throw something in the zone rather than challenging opposing hitters as if it were a zero- or two-strike count.
Throwing more quality strikes should help Wheeler avoid the deep counts and high pitch totals that plagued him last season, and in turn allow him to last longer into starts.
Although Wheeler has the makings of a future ace, he’s not going to achieve that status in 2014.
With the end to Matt Harvey’s 2013 season still fresh on everyone’s minds, the Mets will carefully manage Wheeler’s workload next season, emphasizing progress in his development rather than results; they’d rather see the 23-year-old make swift adjustments and add polish to his game than try to strike out every batter he faces.
However, Wheeler has still has the potential to take a huge step forward next season, and if all goes as planned, the right-hander should make a case to open the 2015 season as the Mets’ No. 2 starter.